Drake to take on Illinois in NCAA first round

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Brian Bauer

Illinois’ Aron Hiltzik strikes back the ball in the meet against University of Kentucky on Feb. 24 at the Atkins Tennis Center in Urbana.

By Brian Binz, Staff writer

For the Illinois men’s tennis team, last year’s campaign ended in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Mississippi State.

This year, the Illini will look to improve on that season starting May 12 against Drake. The Bulldogs hail from Des Moines, Iowa, where they’ve been for 136 years.

The Illini did not have a good enough season to host their first round match and have to travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where they will play at Oklahoma State’s Greenwood Tennis Center. If there’s any kind of home court advantage, it will belong to the Bulldogs, as they travel about 500 miles to the Illini’s 640.

Drake finished the season with a 17-11 record, winning its last five matches to take both the regular season title and the Missouri Valley tournament title without dropping a single match. This was Drake’s 10th Missouri Valley Conference tournament title and its third in four years.

The Bulldogs were the unquestioned top dog in the conference, sweeping the award session with Player of the Year Vinny Gillespie leading the way.

Gillespie, a sophomore from Scotland, has compiled a 6-0 record at the No. 1 singles spot for the Bulldogs. He finished as the highest-ranked singles player for Drake, finishing the year at No. 77 in the nation. Gillespie is one of seven All-MVC players for the Bulldogs.

Despite the difference in conferences for the two teams, they have faced similar opponents. Drake and Illinois have both faced Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Purdue, Northern Illinois and Michigan State.

The Illini went 6-3 against these teams, including splits against Michigan and Purdue. The Bulldogs had a 4-4 record, dropping matches to Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue.

The last time these two teams met was in the NCAA tournament in 2014, when Illinois ended Drake’s season with a 4-2 win in Champaign. Juniors Aleks Vukic and Aron Hiltzik played against the Bulldogs that day with Vukic winning at the No. 5 singles spot and Hiltzik up 5-2 in the third set before the Illini clinched the match.

The winner of the match will play the winner of Oklahoma State and Missouri-Kansas City match.

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